There appears to have been some real shake ups this week for the lions in the Eastern range of the park with the return of the coalition of 3 males first sighted during week 8 of the Matusadona Lion Project.
On the 18th of May on my way from Rhino Safari Camp I picked up signal and spoor for F106, ‘GoGo’, and the rest of the Eastern pride group moving through thick mopane scrub. Whilst strolling along the sandy bush track I stumbled across the spoor of what looked to be 3 males crossing the path of the females. These fresh tracks led all the way back to the Jenje River area and showed the males had covered c. 10km or possibly more in one evening. Many questions spun around in my head as I continued to back-track the spoor; was this the coalition of 3 previously sighted or new males? Were they following the Eastern pride lionesses? And where was the pride male, Shepherd?
The following day I picked up spoor and eventually signal for Shepherd moving from the Kemurara 1 River area into the Sanyati West Bay. Unable to locate him by 10am I headed back to camp and tried my luck again in the afternoon. Signal led me down a large elephant pathway I had not been down for sometime. The pathway is just wide enough for a vehicle and after some 3kms opens out onto a hilly portion of the lakeshore, crowned with plush mopane woodland. The telemetry signal sung louder and louder as I edged around every corner. I occasionally switched off everything to listen for any tell-tail signs but only silence hung in the air. I soon had to turn around without crashing into the lake and found fresh tracks on top of my own. I followed these briefly before they disappeared again only to have to turn back around following signal. This circling continued for sometime…Finally he was spotted looking rather smug whilst resting in the shade having watched my motoring skills.
On the 21st I headed to the Jenje River in anticipation of the Eastern Pride lionesses heading that way from Elephant Point where Rhino Safari Camp is situated. I picked up signal for GoGo however became distracted by a magnificent bull elephant with the biggest tusks I’ve seen in the area. After a few photos I glanced back to where the lionesses were suspected to be and saw I was being watched by 3 male lions - the ‘Jenje Boys’. This coalition were first sighted in Gordons Bay and I had received reports earlier from Jenje which also coincided with spoor leaving and entering the area. My first thought was whether these boys were here with the females given how close GoGo was thought to be? With Shepherd presumed to be on Fothergill Island following signal tracked there that morning, were the girls fraternising with other males in his absence? I had my reservations as the girls were last observed with M103 & F111, the young subadults. Although they appear to be +- 12months old the presence of new males could be a cause for concern and surely the lionesses would keep such potentially threatening males away?
I slowly made my way around to the boys when a resting hippo emerged from a nearby pool disturbed by my presence. It soon appeared that the enormous behind lumbering away was too tempting for one male as he proceeded to sneak up on the river horse, give a gentle slap on its bottom and chase it playfully into the scrub.
The afternoon was uneventful after that as the boys slept until twilight. Around this time a lioness was spotted taking very tentative steps through the grass around the corner towards the boys. It was F107, ‘Elizabeth’, and her behaviour suggested she and the others were certainly not looking for a date. She strained her neck over the bushes and listened intently to the yawns and stirrings of the males. She quickly slunk back as they rose and across the way by the river’s mouth GoGo was seen swimming very determinedly away.
The boys, in their air of blissful ignorance, appeared to completely miss the fleeing lionesses and made their way east. I followed the trio all the way to the Kemurara river area whilst another vehicle tallied 6 lionesses in the area left behind, including Matusadona, who had not been seen with the pride since the end of April.
GoGo was observed heading very adamantly to the Mukuti Road area on the lakeshore c. 7kms away and the boys were slowly following. I eventually lost the lions to the night and the thick vegetation but the next morning showed that GoGo had spun on her heels back to Jenje River leaving the Jenje Boys on the lakeshore. I presumed GoGo had met back up with the rest of the females but never managed to obtain a visual. I decided to invest my efforts in tracking the Jenje Boys who had caused such upset with the girls.
Whilst all this was taking place, Shepherd had been enjoying island life on Fothergill and was still there roaring by the evening of the 22nd. On the 23rd it appeared that he had swam back across to mainland and headed to the Kanjedza River where vultures, lion faeces and communal roaring suggested he had met up again with his smaller Kanjedza Pride for a meal.
On the 24th I began at dawn on the lakeshore and thanks once again to the snorts and puffs of some impala I spotted Matusadona’s last remaining female cheetah. It is thought this old girl is the only cheetah left from the introduction of 14 cheetah on the valley floor in the 1990’s, and is presumably the mother of the 2 younger cheetah males.
Shortly after locating her I found fresh lion spoor and more anxious impala nearby - it looked to be the Jenje Boys again. Whilst I continued to track the National Geographic cameraman filming the cheetah saw an impala ewe she had obviously killed earlier before sunrise. My initial thought was if the scent of a kill is picked up by the boys they will reveal themselves from the bushes. Being a fraction of the weight of a male lion, a female cheetah would relinquish her kill instantly, so I decided to wait it out.
After observing the cheetah feed upon and drag her carcass into the scrub, there was still no sign of any lions so I took another drive around to look for signs. Then there they were. The 3 boys lounging around, care free, and oblivious to any kill anywhere. By dusk they headed off again into the scrub and then the roaring battle commenced. A visual had been obtained of Shepherd moving along the lakeshore of Fothergill Island some 3-4kms away and his roars were heard clearly on the mainland. The boys, perhaps hearing they outnumbered the island male, roared in unison in reply and this continued far into the night. The cheetah all the while appeared quite un-phased by the commotion and continued to enjoy her impala in peace before enjoying a catnap in the sand.
Exceprts from the diary of Rae Kokes, Principle Researcher for ALERT's Matusadona Lion Project.